You may have heard of the term ‘midlife crisis’. As people approach their mid-thirties or forties, it’s quite common to experience a phase of deep reflection, introspection, and evaluate one’s accomplishments in life. Quite often people start to question whether it’s too late to start a family or change careers. Maybe they have been in their current job for a long time and are now feeling stuck, empty, or unfulfilled. The sense of safety and security they spent so long building is now too risky to jeopardise, yet reinforced each day they don’t act. Perhaps they are starting to feel life’s toll on their skin, body, and health; realising that they won’t be around forever and wondering whether people will remember them when they are gone. (The death of someone close could also be a cruel reminder of our limited time here). If you’re looking for some inspiration, keep reading as I’ll briefly outline 5 ways to help you find a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.
Being connected to something greater
Fortunately, we are not alone, as these needs can be explained with Developmental Psychology. Erik Erikson outlines 8 stages of psychosocial development and specifically as we enter the mid-stage of our lives, we all have a hope to be connected to something bigger and nurture future generations. This is a likely reason people start to question the meaning of life, their legacy or whether it’s too late to have children. Knowing the meaning of life is extremely complex and subjective, which makes us feel uncertain and sense a lack of control. I want you to know that these feelings are completely normal and felt by us all, but they are also what makes life worth living. After all, a predictable future would take the element of surprise and excitement out of our lives.
Regret of inaction
Research has shown that the regret of inaction is far greater than the potential regret of taking action. When people regret the things they didn’t do or opportunities they missed, it can leave them in a helpless state of doubt; one which can never be satisfied. On the other hand, when we choose to do something we later regret, it isn’t as bad because we would have felt some element of control in the matter.
Let’s consider the top 5 five regrets of the dying recorded by a palliative nurse (see below).
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Notice that most of these regrets exemplify inaction. It’s clear that those who take risks tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives, so here are some reflective questions to ask yourself: Is inaction worth the long-term feeling of regret? What are the rewards and benefits of taking action? What’s really holding you back?
Other people’s expectations
It’s also important to be aware of external influences that may be holding us back from pursuing our passions and living our best lives. From early on in our lives, we’re told what to do and a lot of our expectations are set by our parents, for instance, which subjects to study at school. In some cases, family expectations continue to have a strong influence over the careers we pursue. Expectations of our friends can even have a hold on the way we behave. You may have heard of fight, flight, and freeze modes but there’s also one called fawn (which is a people-pleasing fear response).
What we really need to be asking ourselves is whether other people’s expectations align with our own needs and values, because when they don’t, we are likely to lose motivation and feel resentful with the consequences in the long run. It’s easy to get caught up in societal expectations, but it doesn’t mean we have to let them continue to dictate our everyday choices and actions. While set expectations aren’t easy to change, it’s never too late. Reflective questions to ask yourself: What are some healthy expectations you wish to set? Which external influences are holding you back?
Acting in alignment with your core values
What do we value most in life? It could be family, relationships, community, serenity, health, personal growth, equality…the list is endless. Our core values are the fundamental principles that drive our emotions and motivation. If seeing inequality makes your blood boil, it means you value fairness. Whether you do something about it or not is a question of whether your behaviour aligns with your values. Though we may not notice it on a daily level, over time it will leave you feeling a sense of purpose, while in its absence you will be left feeling unfulfilled. Though our careers may not be our top priority, it’s useful to remember that we spend 1/3 of our lives engaging in them, so either way, our choice of career will affect our wellbeing.
It’s not so clear cut though. Our emotions can be triggered in other ways and affect the decisions we make on the spot. When acting out of fear, we might make decisions that please overs instead of ourselves. When we make emotionally charged decisions in the moment, they are more irrational, and potentially something we will regret later.
Until we have a clear understanding of our core values, we are likely to continue doing a job we don’t care about or make decisions we later regret. Even though friends and family can negatively influence the things we value, they can also be a means of bringing you closer, as they know you better than anyone. It could be a time to step back and reflect on what is truly important. What are your core values? Did a recent decision you made align with your core values? Are you persisting with something meaningful or out of compliance?
Being part of a community
Volunteering and giving back to your community can also be a great way to find purpose during midlife. Being part of a community is being part of something greater than yourself, potentially leaving a legacy for future generations. It’s also a great way to make new connections with like-minded people and offers a range of health benefits. In fact, helping others releases endorphins and is sure to make others feel good too. Finally, it provides a sense of fulfilment and belonging, so the benefits are rather extensive. Reflective questions to ask yourself: How can you give back to your community? What volunteer opportunities align with your values?
Whatever the reason may be, it’s important to remember that finding your purpose during midlife can be a challenging but also rewarding experience. Finding your purpose is not a one-time event, but a lifelong journey that changes and evolves as we grow and learn. While we may not be in control of what others think of us, we are in control of the expectations we set. Being clear on what matters allows us to better allocate our finite mental resources and feel a greater sense of purpose in our lives.
Read more about James McIntyre-Ure and his other articles HERE
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